CATONSVILLE, Md. - Maryland officials hope to teach police officers and social services workers to be the state's front line in a battle against sex trafficking.
Being a little "nosey" and knowing what signs to look for during everyday interactions and who to alert can make a difference in uncovering what is too often dismissed as a victimless crime, Homeland Security Special Agent Adrian Sanders said.
"Anyone who is observant will see it," Sanders said. "The victims aren't going to reach out for help, so it's up to us to approach them."
Maryland's geographic location, along several transportation corridors, makes the state particularly vulnerable to such crimes, Gov. Martin O'Malley said at the opening of a two-day conference on combatting sex trafficking.
The conference aims to improve coordination among federal, state and local agencies and non-government groups, the response to victims and tracking of traffickers.
The heads of several state departments discussed steps they are taking. Juvenile Services has begun screening girls at one facility to identify victims of sex trafficking. The state Public Safety and Correctional Services department is looking to develop a similar screening tool for adults.
State troopers, who receive training at their academy and at annual seminars, respond to tips about sex trafficking while the computer crimes unit proactively scours the Internet for clues about trafficking cases, said Col. Marcus Brown, superintendent of the Maryland State Police. One major element of education is changing the mindset of people, helping them understand that prostitutes are victims, not criminals, Brown said.
Officials compare the fight to antiterrorism efforts, saying people need to adopt a "See Something, Say Something" attitude toward trafficking.
One important step will be breaking down the stigma associated with prostitution, said Virginia Geckler of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which sponsored the conference with the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force.
"It might be easier for people to say something about terrorism," Geckler said. "We have to destroy that stigma so people will speak up."
Connecting victims with support services can help them break away, but it's also key to successful prosecutions of traffickers, said Steven Hess, a law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"These cases rise and fall with the victims," he said.
Prostitutes often stay with their pimps out of fear and lack of security and need to know they'll get the support they need if they leave, said Melissa Snow of TurnAround, a nonprofit counseling and support services agency for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
"Without direct intervention, it can be impossible for them to escape," Snow said.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)